For people with disabilities, Ability360’s fitness center is not just a gym. It’s a gift, a lifeline, a privilege, a necessity.
The 45,000-square-foot fitness center, part of a 62,000-square-foot campus tucked in a business area east of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and along the light rail route, is the first of its kind in the western United States and one of only a few in the nation.
Its equipment is designed with accessibility in mind. For example, the lap pool has a lowered bench for transferring directly from a wheelchair to the water. The fitness room features strength, cardio and free weight equipment like any gym, but they’re designed to accommodate people with disabilities.
The campus is also home to a slew of nonprofits that help people with various disabilities and is typically bustling with activity. Ability360’s fitness center started the year with 2,800 members.
For those with recent injuries, the gym is a place to see and meet others who have coped with and grown stronger from their injuries, a place for encouragement.
For others, it’s the only place they ever get to use accessible equipment. It might be the only reason they leave the house.
For a select few, like those who had been training to play in the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, it’s one of the best and most adaptive training facilities in the state.
“This is a place like nowhere else,” said Ability360 vice president and general manager Gus LaZear. “It’s warm, it’s welcoming, people are friendly but also keep you accountable for working out.”
Like many gyms, Ability360 shut down March 17. But when other gyms raced to reopen, Ability360 leaders were more cautious. They serve a more vulnerable population.
The Arizona Republic followed three Ability360 members over several months, documenting as they coped with the rollercoaster of closures and re-openings at the facility they described as being like a second home, a place where their disability didn’t define them.
When Ability360, a Phoenix gym for people with disabilities closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they adapted.
For a Paralympic athlete, Ability360 is essential
Joe Jackson, 30, has been paralyzed from the waist down since being injured during a Hamilton High School football game in 2005.
Breaking his C6 vertebrae in his lower neck left him without the ability to sweat, meaning he can quickly overheat — a common result of spinal cord injuries.
He didn’t used to have to think about it because of the air conditioned rooms at Ability360. He’d been going there three to five days a week for sessions spanning several hours since the gym’s opening in 2011.
Ability360’s focus on accessibility has been a “game-changer” for Jackson, he said.
Jackson in 2007 started playing quad rugby and joined Ability360’s team, which practiced three times per week for three hours at a time at the facility on top of regular games and tournaments.
In 2017, Jackson became a member of the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair rugby team, which required him to travel to Alabama for four to 10 days per month.
He was set to compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, which were eventually canceled because of COVID-19.
At first, he mostly stayed home because of his compromised immune system. Adding to the concern is that people with quadriparesis — muscle weakness in all four limbs — can experience decreased lung capacity if they don’t stay active.
He also worried about the wheels on his chair bringing germs inside his house, and said he opted to stay home instead of having to wipe down his chair every time he went out.
But in August, he knew he needed to stay in shape if he wanted a chance of making it to — and winning — the Paralympics in 2021. To avoid the heat, he started waking up at 4 a.m. to work out before temperatures rose.
He started driving to his friend and former football teammate Dontay Moch’s house in north Phoenix to train with him. It’s an hour from his home in Maricopa, but he’s been going three times a week throughout the Ability360 closure.
Jackson said Moch grabs weights for him and helps him set up lifts and resistance bands.
“When energy’s lacking at home, it keeps me motivated, it helps me a lot — everybody needs a little buddy to pump you up and tell you, ‘you got this.'”
But Jackson is hoping that after a year riddled with unprecedented challenges, they’ll bring home a gold medal in 2021.
“It’ll be that much sweeter when we go,” he said. “Like alright, that pandemic sucked, we got through it. Let’s bust our butts and do what we wanted to do last year.”
Pushing to become first woman on Phoenix Heat wheelchair rugby team
Jennifer Chaillie, 38, was racing down the incline in the Ability360 parking garage in her wheelchair.
She’d push herself through the garage’s multiple levels, sometimes pushing herself backwards or leaning forward in her chair to work different muscle groups along the way.
Her AirPods played country and R&B playlists, which Chaillie said were her go-to for the parking garage cardio sessions.
She, at times, had to pause to regather her strength and cool herself down with a spray from her water bottle.
Like Jackson, Chaillie doesn’t have the ability to sweat because of the damage to her C6 and C7 vertebrae. She is paralyzed from the chest down from a 2011 accident in which she dove into a shallow pool.
“It’s definitely hard, it’s definitely not a fast thing for me,” Chaillie said after her workout. “I’m pretty slow and steady at doing it. This is probably one of the best workouts because it’s so intense and it’s such a steep incline.”
Though it was comfortable enough outside to do it in March or April, the rising temperatures largely kept her away from outdoor exercises that also included hand cycling and pushing herself up and down hills at Kiwanis Park.
The temperatures for a few days at the end of August dipped below 100, telling Chaillie it was time to go back.
A lot has changed within her body throughout those months without the machines and workouts she was used to.
“It’s been hard because I’ve definitely lost muscle,” she said. “Even doing weights at home, I’ve definitely lost a lot of the strength.”
And that’s a big deal for Chaillie, who prior to the COVID-19 outbreak was practicing with the Phoenix Heat Rugby Team and considering whether she wanted to join.
“I’m definitely concerned the longer it goes, the longer it’ll take to get back to that peak of fitness I was at before it closed,” she said.
Chaillie applied for grants to get her own rugby chair — a $9,000 expense.
Previously, she’d borrowed a chair to be able to practice with the team. Since then, though, the person she was borrowing it from sold the chair, and Chaillie has put endless hours of work into funding her own.
Though the rugby season always pauses for the summer, Chaillie said she would normally continue practices with the team in its off-season. She said she’s been “missing the joking around and the fun during practice.”
Though she said she’s “nowhere near competing yet” in terms of her physical ability, Chaillie hopes to be able to travel with the team, who she referred to as a “really great group of guys,” next year.
Another component of the accomplishment would be being the only woman on the team.
“I definitely want to empower women to be active and do sports,” she said, adding that she also wants to be a “positive role model” for others with her level of injuries.
‘This is my resort’: The pool reopens
On May 26, Ability360 reopened only its aquatic center, and by appointment only. Oneka Temple couldn’t wait to be back.
It’s where she was on an August morning, wearing a floppy white hat to shield herself from the blazing sun.
Access to the pool, at that point, was still the only thing the gym offered to its members. They could make reservations for pool time every Thursday, and Temple said slots filled up quickly. But she had been finding a way to go every week.
“It’s like an empowerment thing — it strengthens you mentally and physically,” she said.
Temple was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the early 2000s, and in 2018 developed a brain tumor that was related to the disease and limited the mobility in her hands and feet.
The development prompted Temple to retire from her job as a teacher at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, and it was around the same time she started going to Ability360 at the recommendation of her team at Barrow Neurological Institute.
Temple underwent surgery to remove the tumor earlier this year, just before the pandemic.
She felt uncomfortable with the thought of a physical therapist coming to her home for treatment because of the pandemic, so she went without it for the first few months.
But she stayed cheerful. Her hair had finally grown long enough since her surgery to warrant a haircut, which made her “so excited.”
Celebrating the little victories seemed to be Temple’s way of navigating the COVID-19 era, and the overhaul of daily routines it brought with it — namely, the changes to Ability360.
“I don’t want to say depressing, but it is a little saddening because it’s an outlet and we don’t have the outlet now,” she said.
The only part of the outlet they did have was the pool, and Temple committed to making the most of it. She and another participant chatted away while following the lead of an Ability360 instructor.
Their conversations lamented the impact of COVID-19 on everyday life, as well as the lingering heat from Phoenix’s hottest summer on record.
Temple cycled through a variety of exercises in the water, including high knees and balancing on a BOSU ball.
She took her time getting out of the pool, comparing her trek from the middle of the pool to the staircase to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Though the classes aren’t always easy, Temple always finds they’re worth it.
“This is my resort, and I put my energy in and I really look forward to this,” she said. “If I didn’t have this opportunity, I wouldn’t be doing as well as I am.”
“It’s not just the facility, it’s the people that make such a difference,” she said. “The people that work here and the people that come here, it’s a true community and I miss that.”
With gym still closed, Ability360 offers online personal training sessions
Ability360 opened its fitness center on June 15 but closed it less than two weeks later. Back to at-home workouts.
So Temple sat on a green exercise ball in her living room adorned with family photos, wooden animal figurines and sheer, leopard-print curtains.
Temple was energetic and spoke excitedly about the progress she’d made since her February surgery.
“I believe I’ve gotten stronger,” she said. “I’m not a rockstar yet, but I’m getting there.”
She wore a shirt that, among other self-affirming statements, said “she is brave” and “she is strong” as she logged on to Zoom for a 30-minute session with her trainer, Brielle Carter.
Carter told Temple to begin by marching in place while sitting on the exercise ball and stretching her arms over her head.
Some of the moves appeared to be more difficult than others, with Temple grunting as she moved her arm across her body, moving her elbow toward the opposite knee in a crunch.
Though it was clear the session was strenuous, Temple was rarely seen without a megawatt smile on her face.
The session was just one of many they’ve had since April. Temple says Carter’s discipline is what’s helped her progress as much as she has. Carter ensures that they meet twice per week, no matter what.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity and it’s more than just an opportunity with Brielle,” she said. “If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have anything.”
Temple said there’s no way she’d be doing similar exercises on her own.
“There’s no sick days or anything,” Temple said. “There are a couple days I didn’t necessarily feel like it, but I think we have that commitment to each other.”
Though she said Zoom sessions are easier than in-person sessions, because she doesn’t have to think about finding transportation and can remain in the comfort of her living room, she misses the facility.
“It’s just because you’re all in the same boat at 360 — in the world, you’re not,” she said.
Looking at Tokyo 2021
Jackson sat barefoot in his wheelchair in his backyard as the sun began its descent into the west. It was September and still 100 degrees outside.
He logged on to a Zoom call with more than a dozen other members from the national rugby team.
“It’s definitely something I look forward to,” Jackson said.
The conversation began lightly and each participant was asked to describe something that made them laugh since the last time they’d talked.
The conversations about pets and children brought a moment of levity to the frustrating circumstances. A team member solemnly remarked that the hiatus from team sports, which had gone on for six months at that point, was the longest time they’d ever been away from rugby.
Then there was good news for the team: They were going to hold an in-person training at their Alabama facility starting Dec. 1.
Much of the call focused on the logistics of the trip, like safely getting team members across the country, what meal times would look like and self-isolation protocols that they would have to follow immediately upon their arrival to form a bubble like the NBA.
Jackson said he was both “nervous and excited” to resume travel with the team.
“I’m excited to get back on the court with everybody and do what we’re used to doing,” he said.
At last, the gym reopens
On Sept. 14, the Ability 360 fitness center reopened.
Masks were required and LaZear said they would only be operating at about 10% capacity, meaning only 10 or so people could be in the center at one time.
Temple, ecstatic to be back, first tried the seated leg curl. Though gloves weren’t required, Temple wore them as she used a green microfiber cloth to wipe down each piece of equipment before moving on.
As she’d promised to do during her last Zoom training session, Temple increased her weights. She grabbed the red 2.5-pound dumbbells, mentally preparing herself for a more taxing weightlifting session than she was used to by saying “OK, I’m gonna try.”
She put one dumbbell in each hand, holding them directly in front of her chest before moving them apart toward her sides and then pinching them back together.
“Six, lucky seven, eight, nine and ten,” Temple counted, in between her taxed breathing.
Her face brightened when, toward the end of her session, she spotted her pool workout partner on a bike machine from a distance. They gave each other quick hugs and then resumed their chatting, which that day was consumed with criticism of the first presidential debate that had taken place the night before.
The pair departed a few minutes later, but agreed to try to get a 10 a.m. pool session that week so they could have another class together.
Chaillie, too, couldn’t wait for a workout that didn’t involve pushing herself up a parking garage.
“I definitely feel like it kind of eases some of the tension from the pandemic, like things are slowly getting back to how life was before we got hit with the hard stuff,” she said. “Just being able to say ‘hi’ to people you haven’t seen and that kind of stuff is always nice.”
As she’d predicted, the machines were more difficult than they had been. She used to use the tricep dip machine with 135 pounds, but now either has to do less reps or go down to 120 pounds.
Team practices were still not happening at that point, but Chaillie said she hoped things would change by the start of the 2021 season.
“If they could start it tomorrow, I’d be all in — but obviously, I don’t think that’s plausible,” she said.
Chaillie hopes Ability360 will start allowing small groups to practice together. She said the team members have been “really good” about showing her new drills and teaching her things to improve.
“I think it’d be nice to get back since I was just learning, I was building new skills and new muscles,” she said. “Just to get back to rebuild that, so when teams start I can actually be a productive member of the team.”
In the meantime, she continued applying for funding so she could get her own rugby chair. She’d received another grant, but said she still needed another $2,800.
“I think it’s just easier to be able to have the right equipment and the right motivation to be out of the house and not kind of stuck inside as much,” she said. “That, I think, just brings a better motivation to push yourself. I was always pushing forward anyway, but it helps me push harder, faster, better when I have access to the right stuff.”
Chaillie said she believes she feels better equipped to handle the sudden changes brought about by COVID-19 because of her disability.
“We already … have to adapt to figure out how to do normal things,” she said. “My mindset is always in that adaptive mode.”
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-8529. Follow her on Twitter @brieannafrank.
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